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by Rob Horning

26 Nov 2008

One of my hypotheses is that consumer behavior is anchored in the placebo effect, and advertising serves the vital function of supplying the mind with material to work with, just enough to make belief plausible enough to achieve desirable effects. We just have to grant ads the authority we give to actual experts, like doctors. It seems as though we do this readily, without much profound consideration of what should constitute actual expertise. (I’m supposed to buy a certain kind of tea because Dodgers manager Joe Torre drinks it.) We are basically culpable in our being seduced by ads; we’re not somehow tricked into belief against our will. It’s beneficial to believe, because it promises us placebo magic. Skepticism can turn out to be a costly failure of imagination, especially when we just need to imagine we can feel better to actually achieve it.

Consumerism supplies imaginary solutions to problems that marketing has convinced us to reconceptualize as purchasing decisions. Making the choice to buy masks whatever underlying problem spurred the “retail therapy” in the first place. Whether or not the good has any actual demonstrable effect on anything—whether or not we even use it—is beside the point. An example: I downloaded a bunch of Genesis albums the other day, but I can assure you that I will never listen to most of them. But there was still something satisfying about filling a hole in my music collection, even if that hole wasn’t actually a problem. It wasn’t like I was suffering for want of hearing Trespass. But acquiring things is a simple way of making myself feel like I have taken some sort of action. Marketing, I guess, functions by making sure I am always aware of that sweet simplicity.

Anyway, I’ve seen a few articles lately that explore the dark side of the placebo effect, where the benefits of belief turn into liabilities. Last week, the WSJ reported on “nocebos”:

Research has shown that expecting to feel ill can bring illness on in some instances, particularly when stress is involved. The technical term is the “nocebo effect,” and it’s placebo’s evil twin. “It’s not a psychiatric disorder—it’s the way the mind works,” says Arthur Barsky, director of Psychiatric Research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Nocebos can even be fatal. In one classic example, women in the multi-decade Framingham Heart study who thought they were at risk for heart attacks were 3.7 times as likely to die of coronary conditions as women who didn’t have such fears—regardless of whether they smoked or had other risk factors.
Research deliberately causing nocebos has been limited (after all, it’s kind of cruel). But in one 1960s test, when hospital patients were given sugar water and told it would make them vomit, 80% of them did.

This is a scary look at what the socially distributed notion of authority can accomplish. Even internal movements of our consciousness, which seem to be generated from within, are apparently easily shaped, once we commit ourselves to participation and belief. Back up would-be authority figures with institutional heft, and they can basically create your reality, down to the level of nausea you feel.

Doctors may unwittingly foster placebo or nocebo effects by how enthusiastically or warily they discuss medication. “Physician communication with patients is the closest thing to magic. It gets communicated in incredibly subtle ways—a flash in the eye, a smile, a spring in the step,” says Daniel Moerman, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

The authority figure—the social relation—is what counts. Often, apparently, the medicine is just the trace of that.

I’m tempted to get sidetracked into a consideration of whether such induced feelings are “authentic” or not, though I suppose death is about as authentic an effect as can be achieved. But it’s probably irrelevant to the degree that all “symptoms” are in some way “induced” by something. If we attempt to ignore or downplay the “induced” aspects of consciousness, what would be left to be real? The article makes clear how when you ask someone for symptoms, they generally will supply them.

“People’s expectations play a very important role in how they react to all medications,” says Richard Kradin, a physician and psychoanalyst at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and author of “The Placebo Response and the Power of Unconscious Healing.” He notes that about 25% of patients who get completely inert placebos in clinical trials complain of side effects—typically headaches, drowsiness and dizziness.

If the stage is set for us to be self-aware in that way, our minds will make something happen. This has led me to be against biofeedback. The more I know about what is happening with my body, the more I think is wrong with me and the worse I feel. Is there a way to have no expectations at all? Is there a way to achieve total health ignorance? Would preventive care prevent me from feeling good?

The NYT followed with this article on research Microsoft carried out that suggests, to the surprise of absolutely no one, “that self-diagnosis by search engine frequently leads Web searchers to conclude the worst about what ails them.”

Such findings evoke the debate about whether the internet can create and propagate new mental illnesses by making the very concepts behind them more prevalent and accessible. (This Atlantic story, which I am always looking for excuses to link to, explores that question.)

 

by Dave Heaton

26 Nov 2008

 

1. Sigur Rós - “Gobbledigook”

 

2. Erykah Badu - “Honey”

 

3. Los Campesinos - “Death to Los Campesinos”

 

4. McCarthy Trenching - “The Most Attractive Disguise”

 

5. The Smittens - “Gumdrops”

by David Pullar

25 Nov 2008

TV comic John Clarke once mocked an Australian Prime Minister’s claim that Australia’s future was in Asia.  “I told him Malaysia’s future was in Canada,” said Clarke, playing the then Malaysian PM Mahathir bin Mohamad.  I’m not sure Australia’s become any more Asian (or Malaysia any more Canadian) in the intervening decade.

The relationship really consists of a two way flow—Asia sends Australia migrants who enrich our social fabric, Australia sends Asia backpackers who get drunk in Phuket or Bali and return with Australian flags tattooed on their biceps.

Perhaps this explains my curiosity about the $110,000 Australia-Asia Literary Award, initiated by the Western Australian Government and won this year by David Malouf.  There just doesn’t seem to be any reason for it.  You can celebrate excellence in Asian writing or Australian writing.  There are many prizes that will recognise good writing wherever it’s from.  Why this seemingly arbitrary prize?

I can only imagine that it’s to encourage a sense of connectedness between the two continents.  Yet the prize seems to be based on literary merit alone, irrespective of whether the Asian books have any Australian themes or the Australian books any interest in Asia.

In addition, the eligibility criteria seem highly flexible.  The defining feature is that the nominated novels must be written by Australian or Asian residents or set in Australia or Asia.  Ceridwen Dovey’s Blood Kin made the shortlist, despite the author being a South African residing in New York City.

Blood Kin is a remarkable book and I gave it a particularly positive review early this year.  But it’s not an Australian book.  If it’s set anywhere, I’d plump for a South American country—the languorous, tropical feel and the militaristic environment certainly don’t feel Australian.  Dovey attended high school in Australia and has family here, but I doubt that she considers herself an Aussie.

It’s hardly surprising that an Australian prize jury would claim Dovey as one of our own.  2008 Man Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga holds dual Indian-Australian citizenship and the Aussie press wasted no time in adopting him.  His high school education in Sydney is hardly the defining characteristic of a life that has spanned four continents. 

We’ve also latched onto Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born Australian now on his way to take up a writing fellowship in the UK.  Le, the winner of the 2008 Dylan Thomas prize for his story collection The Boat is an exciting young talent and did at least spend a sizeable portion of his life down under.  In fact, he’s probably the best-suited person in the world to take home a prize looking at the complex relationship between Asia and Australia.  And he wasn’t even longlisted.

by Bill Gibron

25 Nov 2008

Ever since a certain Mr. Apatow introduced us to a middle aged man child with limited sexual experience, the motion picture comedy has been flooded with what could best be described as ‘self-aware slackers’. You know the type - hard and cynical on the outside, indulging in whatever vice or vices they can in order to make up for the emptiness inside. Eventually, with the help of an understanding gal pal, a bumbling best friend, or a combination of the two, our hapless hero discovers clarity, and in turn, a far more productive outlook on life. This formula has been followed in several recent laugh riots - Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Superbad. Now there’s another name to add to the genre, and while not as consistently funny as the aforementioned efforts, Role Models provides enough solid snickers to eventually win us over.

When they end up in some silly accidental legal trouble, energy drink corporate rep Danny Donahue and his arrested adolescent buddy Wheeler are sentenced to 30 days of community service. Forced to serve their time at a local outreach center known as Sturdy Wings, each man is paired up with a troubled youth. The expected result hopes for a little mature guidance and lots of substitute parent/child quality time. For Wheeler, that means putting up with the F-bomb dropping delinquent Ronnie, while Danny must contend with a D&D obsessed nerd named Augie. Of course, no one gets along at first, our heroes making many mistakes while desperate to relate to these kids. This really pisses off the former drug addict director of the center. Eventually, everyone finds a happy middle ground of acceptance, although their bonds are tested during a Renaissance Fair battle royale. No, seriously. 

Last time we saw Paul Rudd and several members of MTV’s cult sketch comedy series The State working together, it was on the uneven but often interesting Commandment comedy The Ten. Now comes the hilarious, if half-formed, Role Models. Offering a trio of elements so effective that they literally blot out almost everything that’s bad, director David Wain finds a way to milk the current craze for anything Apatow into a sweet, sarcastic slice of coming of age affection. By the end of the film, we really care about Danny and Wheeler, the former’s faltering relationship with good sport lawyer Beth (played by the currently omnipresent Elizabeth Banks), and their two underage sidekicks. And thanks to these important aspects, the filmmaker unlocks a series of ways to keep things consistently funny.

The first formidable feature is the raw raunch power of a cursing grade-schooler. Nothing is funnier - or more inappropriate - than a wee one working it, Richard Pryor style. Oddly enough, actor Bobb’e J. Thompson is more than just a sailor’s handbook of profanity. There is real pain and anger in this kid and though the novelty of hearing him swear a blue streak wears off quickly, the effect is still sensational. He is matched quip for quip by Rudd. As he did in Knocked Up, the current “FOJ” (friend of Judd) drops little atomic bombs of brilliance, either in reaction or rejoinder, keeping everything Danny does a question of taste and/or tolerance. Rudd is especially strong during the opening bits, where his dead end life as an energy drink pitch man proves almost lethal. He even has a nice running joke with Thompson (who tags him with the ultimate put-down, “Ben Affleck”).

The final fun facet is the film’s unbridled love for things just slightly outside the mainstream. KISS, about as relevant in 2008 as Uriah Heap and Foghat, become the inspired muse for both Wheeler and our quartet’s last act stand off during the role playing L.A.I.R.E. tournament. Just hearing “Detroit Rock City” blaring from a Minotaur shaped monster truck is more than enough sweet cheese movie magic. Even better, the whole Middle Earth dynamic is both celebrated and chastised, its lack of a link to reality matched evenly by how much pleasure and pride the competitors get out of the event.

So, what doesn’t work? Frankly, the perpetually scruffy Seann William Scott is too lost in his own libido to garner our sympathy. You just know the minute he sees a hot chick with a pair of come hither…eyes, he’s abandoning Ronnie to his own unsupervised devices. And Elizabeth Banks does the whole noble girlfriend part perfectly, but she’s almost ancillary to the entire narrative (as Rudd’s serenade of the KISS classic “Beth” illustrates). In fact, Role Models really doesn’t need such mainstream sentimentality. The way in which our do-nothing heroes begin to bond with their lost and somewhat fragile charges provides more than enough emotion to sustain us.

Role Models may be more sweet than satiric. It tosses off the slang and four letter slams with casual abandon, recognizing almost inherently that we will giggle at their presold shock value. But it’s the moment when Wheeler and Ronnie connect over the concept of breasts (or “boobies”, as the movie lovingly calls them) or when Danny defends Augie to his clueless parents that this film finds its voice. In fact, without the sexual references and graphic language, this would be a pleasant PG romp. But Role Models knows it takes more than heart to get Cineplex audiences interested in a contemporary comedy. So it borrows a few blue moves from the Apatow playbook. To paraphrase a classic quote, copycatting is the sincerest form of filmmaking flattery. This winning, if slightly wonky, effort has enough positives to keep the few unnecessary negatives at bay.

by Bill Gibron

25 Nov 2008

So this is what five Oscar winners gets you? This is the result of the combined Academy caliber efforts of Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line), Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter), Mary Steenburgen (Melvin and Howard), Jon Voight (Coming Home), and Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies)? Certainly this quintet, along with some solid satiric support from Wedding Crashers cad Vince Vaughn, and a dash of supplemental slapstick from Swingers pal Jon Favreau, could create a clever, comic Yuletide gem, right? They’ve even got Seth “The King of Kong” Gordon on their side, steering the material toward some edgier environs. And yet, with all this potential talent on tap, Four Christmases ends up a wasted, worthless excuse for holiday humor. 

Unmarried yup couple Brad and Kate certainly enjoys their Christmases away from the family. Every year, they make up elaborate stories about charity work and traveling to unfriendly climes so they can get out of the mandatory Noel get-togethers. Instead, they head to exotic locales like Cancun and Fiji and enjoy a particularly cool Yule. But when San Francisco International gets fogged in, and a live news report exposes the pair’s plans, its not long before the cellphone starts to ring. Before long, the duo are heading out to visit the relatives. For Brad, that means seeing his redolent, redneck Dad (and cruel cage fighter brothers) and his May to December Mom (she married his best friend). For Kate, it’s confronting her sister’s raging biology, and a distant father who may just hold the key to her future - with or without Brad.

Flailing like a dying fish out of water and eventually smelling just as fetid, Four Christmases is stiflingly unfunny. It’s rotten mistletoe over a condemned homestead’s archway. In fact, it’s such an unbridled waste, such a horrifying amalgamation of inept attempted laughs that you wonder what the capable cast was thinking during the filming of certain scenes. Did Favreau and Vaughn really believe the WWE-inspired physical comedy ‘smackdown’ was going to elicit anything other than groans? Was seeing Steenburgen in full Jesus freak mode (alongside a scruffy looking Dwight Yoakim as her pastor beau) supposed to be a legitimate reason to laugh. Does referring to Witherspoon’s character as “Cootie Kate” make the sequence silly, or just stupid? And how far can the whole “kids are craven and evil” thing be pushed before it borders on abuse…for all involved?

With its anthology-like set-up (we just know we’re going to have to suffer through a quartet of these pained visits) and Gordon’s incomplete directing style, there’s always some small amount of potential in this ‘holidays as horror story’ scenario. But the minute we get to the redneck haven of testosterone and terminal b.o., all bets are off. The scenes where Duvall does his best hick trick while Favreau and Grammy Winner Tim McGraw play Deliverance is just dumb. It leads to nothing legitimate, and when Vaughn takes a fall from several feet, we wonder why his next stop was the home of Witherspoon’s mom, not the hospital. The preceding set-up is doubly dreadful. First, we have to witness our heroine fighting off brats in a backyard moonwalk, only to have that topped by a horrid Nativity pageant where Vaughn does his worst Richard Burton meets a muppet overacting.

At this point, we pray for some manner of respite from all the idiocy. On the plus side, Four Christmases delivers. On the downside, this is done by giving Spacek and her cougar character little or nothing to do. Instead of milking the possibilities of an older woman/younger man ideal, Vaughn gets all the good lines. Rattling them off like he’s making them up on the spot, we’re actually happy when Favreau turns up again to whip his brother’s butt in the board game Taboo. By the time we arrive at the Voight residence, we’re as ready as the characters to call this experience over. Luckily, we get to leave the theater. Our cast must suffer through the kind of last act desperation as inspiration that often brings the entire production to a crashing halt. Luckily, that old Tinsel Town standby - biology - comes along to save the day.

If it was anyone other than the performance powerhouses of Duvall, Steenburgen, Voight, Vaughn, Spacek, and Witherspoon in front of the camera, we might have allowed for how way below average Four Christmases is. But casting an A-list immediately elevates the expectations, and not a single actor meets them. We imagine they can make up stuff funnier than what was in the script, but we’re clearly misguided in that concept. Gordon obviously allowed his far more experienced cast to run ramshackle over his designs, with Vaughn the most egregious offender. There are instances when he goes off on stupid stream of incomprehensibleness rants that merely add up to literal minutes of laughless screen time. He is matched by Witherspoon in that she’s offered nothing remotely humorous to add. She’s the sap. He’s the uninvited guest whose long overstayed his welcome.

By the end, we just want the obligatory break-up/make-up and to be done with it. It’s rare, especially in this current rib-tickling renaissance, to find something as solidly hateful as Four Christmases. If the holidays didn’t already have you contemplating suicide, this sad excuse for something warm but witty will have you headed for the nearest crisis hotline, ASAP. This time of year is already a chore, what with the mandatory family fellowship and credit crunching consumer guilt. The last thing we need is a movie that manifests its anger in strangulated, unsatisfying ways. Apparently, when actors cash in their Oscar credits, this is the kind of crap they are given. Kind of puts their pissed off prima donna antics into perspective, doesn’t it?

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